When it comes to must-see virtuosity in Internet video, pornographers, VFX wizards, and even box-loving cats have nothing on a man and his bike. At least when it's the street trials rider Danny MacAskill, who has appeared in a series of videos literally bouncing off walls, hopping across rooftops, and generally doing things that human bodies and bikes just weren’t meant to do. The 2010 video, Way Back Home, produced via Red Bull, was viewed some 13 million times online.
Team MacAskill released a new video last week, Industrial Revolutions, depicting yet more death-defying feats. The obstacle course is a derelict iron works and rail yard where, in one stunning shot, we see MacAskill walking along a rope suspended between two cars; the next shot has the trickster traversing the tightrope on two wheels. The action is set to the track The Wolves by Ben Howard. There’s a lifetime of skill that accounts for the most of the genius at work in the videos; the rest is some clever camera work by Stu Thomson, a longtime friend of MacAskill and competitive mountain bike rider-turned director.
What’s involved in capturing such insanity? Thomson's setup was remarkably minimal—he filmed for eight days, mostly with one camera. Here, Thomson takes us through some of the highlights of the video, which was shot for a Channel 4 documentary called Concrete Circus.
There were three big challenges during this shoot: MacAskill's fitness, the mental challenges of riding, and the difficulty in getting that one shot when he finally pulls a trick. It doesn't show in such a short video, says Thomson, but these tricks often take 20, 50 or even up to 100 attempts to pull so the strain on MacAskill's body is huge. "He has struggled with injury a lot this year, and on this shoot in particular he's had a lot of pain in his knee — there was just a lot of painkillers involved," says Thomson. Occasionally they had to take a day or afternoon off to give his body a rest. "The mental challenge is that when you are doing a back flip drop of two meters onto concrete or riding on a cable 4 meters off the ground it's a scary thing. Some of the bigger tricks take a lot of focus and bravery to do and sometimes that barrier takes Danny a long time to overcome. That's why it's crucial to get the shot when he finally lands the trick" (for the hardest tricks that would afford only one take, Thomson recruited a second director for additional angles). "It’s easy to lose concentration when you've done the same shot 100 times," says Thomson. "You have to make sure that you are 100% focused on the filming all the time!"
"My favorite shot is the long shot of Danny riding along the top of the trains," says Thomson. "We knew that was so important to the feel of the whole video. All the trains lined up, the stunning colors of them and the beautiful green backdrop were so important and it really makes the film. That day the weather was lovely (another challenge of filming in Scotland) and that shot is everything I love about filming, stunning colors, beautiful scenery and an amazingly talented athlete."
In one shot, MacAskill "walks" across the ribs of a decayed rail car. Thomson says: "For Danny that's one of the easier parts of the video. He was happy to do that over and over to get different shots. That’s the reason why we had the jib shot moving up between the bars on the carriage. Its a more difficult shot as we had the jib/crane setup on the top of the train bridging over two carriages. It was a pretty precarious position to film from and a difficult shot to get right but you can do that when its an easier trick for Danny as you get more than one attempt at the shot."
Another stunner: MacAskill rides along a single rail track, flips around and rides along the other track in the opposite direction. "Again, Danny finds that relatively easy," says Thomson. "The main focus was to do it without taking a foot off the pedal to balance. He pulled it after a few attempts and we actually tried to get some more complex tricks done on the rails (a tailwhip between them for those who have some BMX/trials knowledge!) but it wasn't to be."
And then there's the rope. "We didn't even discover that part of the location until we had been filming for 4 days," says Thomson. "We took a break from filming to give Danny a rest at one point and we went off exploring. As soon as we saw it Danny said straight away he would ride along it. To be honest both myself and our assistant Nash were pretty doubtful, and I'd like to think we know fairly well what Danny is capable of." It took around 25 attempts for MacAskill to pull it off. "That was a bit of a turning point on the whole project," Thomson says, "as from that point on Danny grew in confidence and we knew we had something great in the can."
Is this product placement? "Not really," says Thomson. "The project was for a TV documentary without sponsors or corporate backing. However I'd say Danny's shoe sponsor (5Ten) and helmet sponsor (Red Bull) did very well out of the video."
We see MacAskill flub a trick for the first time here. "It was always my aim with the video to make Danny more human than in his previous videos," says Thomson. "He works so hard at what he does and falls off all the time because that's the only way to get better. In this video you see far more of Danny's personality and drive than you have seen before."
The end result of this shoot for Thomson was the formation of a new company, Cut Media. After producing mountain bike-focused videos for the past three years out of his MTBcut shop, he's expanding his scope to include a broader range of work including advertising campaigns and music videos.